DIR: David Yates
This isn’t supposed to happen. Franchises that are seven films deep aren’t supposed to still be good, and certainly they aren’t supposed to be continuing to get smarter and deeper even as they hit an almost entirely action driven final chapter. Franchises seven films deep (or considerably less, look at the Final Destination series) are supposed to be moulded to be empty retreads; titles that can be exploited to shore up a studio’s books, without scaring away a built in audience. That’s just one way in which the Harry Potter films have thrown out the franchise rulebook.
As the tile would suggest, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is not really a film in and of itself so much as it is the concluding half of a single gigantic film, but you can’t – even if it’s Harry Potter – release a blockbuster aimed at 12 and 13 year olds that is longer than Gone With the Wind. That said, this film does, at least in its last two thirds, have a very different feel to that of its predecessor, where Part 1 was largely a quiet and reflective film, concerned with developing and deepening the relationship between its three questing main characters, Part 2 is the explosion of sound and fury, only this time it signifies everything.
After the close up on the central trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron in the first part, this film casts its net wider, in an attempt (which it largely succeeds in) to give us a moment of closure for all of the series’ significant characters, all the while keeping the story of Harry and Voldemort’s personal confrontation in sharp focus as the central thing around which the whole film pivots.
There are few actors new to the franchise in this film, and the performances – which are exemplary all round – benefit from the familiarity of the actors with their characters, as does the story. Much of the film’s weight is really something that it gets for free, because it comes from the history as much as it does from what is happening in this film; for example when Molly Weasly (Julie Walters) protects Ginny (Bonnie Wright) from an attacking Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) both the act and the accompanying line “Not my daughter, you bitch” draw strength and shock from the fact that for the past ten years Walters has been a warm, serene, motherly figure in these films.
As I said above, the acting is excellent from all concerned, and with a huge cast it would be too time consuming to cover everyone, but some of the supporting players do need singling out. Matthew Lewis, who has been nerdy, accident prone comic relief from the start as Neville Longbottom, gets a great showcase here, as Neville steps up to the plate to become an unlikely but very real hero, without ever losing his essential character (in a nice moment after he barely survives a collapsing bridge he asks where Luna is; “I’m mad for her, and I’ve never told her, but I think I should since we’ll probably both be dead by morning”). Helena Bonham Carter; thus far a mad screeching whirlwind as Bellatrix Lestrange, gets to do something very different at the start of the film, as Hermione takes polyjuice potion for a break in to Bellatrix’s vault at Gringotts, and Bonham Carter gets to play very awkward Hermione now resembling the woman who, not 24 hours ago, tortured her. It’s one of the film’s few lighter moments, and welcome given the darkness of these 130 minutes. Also given an especially nice moment to shine is Maggie Smith as Professor McGonnagall, who gives strength to the rebellion at Hogwarts, and has a lovely moment of almost schoolgirlish glee when, just as battle is about to be joined, she gets to use a spell she’s always wanted to try. Those are the moments, the ones you treasure, the ones that mean so much, because they are the ones that other blockbusters would miss, and – entirely non-coincidentally – the ones that make these people human, make us care for them. It’s a shame to see the likes of Bonnie Wright and Evanna Lynch get a bit sidelined, but even they get moments to shine, and they take them with gusto.
Greatly expanded from the other films are the roles of Snape and Voldemort. Alan Rickman has always been something of a secret weapon for this franchise; his clipped tones perfectly suited to Snape’s mix of menace and humour, and to conveying his murky and seemingly changeable loyalties. He’s been a mysterious and intriguing character, and here Rickman finally gets to show his hand. Yes, the ten minute series of flashbacks filling in Snape’s background and showing us what has been going on behind the main narrative of the previous films is a huge expository infodump, but it’s gracefully executed. The casting of the young Snape (and of a young analogue for Geraldine Somerville’s Lily Potter) is dead on, and the nostalgic soft focus gives it a different feel, while conferring what this memory means to both Snape and Harry, and it also happens to give the film’s third act an even greater weight, to make the final confrontation feel even more apocalyptic. The battle between Harry and Voldemort has always been on two levels. It is an apocalyptic confrontation to decide the fate of the wizarding world, but as far as the films are concerned what is more important is that it is a battle between two men, tied together by fate, and this film, with its brutal end of act two twist, plays that up brilliantly. Ralph Fiennes has largely been a background figure so far; a looming threat, but in this film he finally gets to really explore Voldemort in more detail. It’s an interesting piece of work, deeper than the stock evil bastard it could easily have been (it would have been easy for Fiennes to let all that brilliant make up do the work for him) but what’s really interesting is how Fiennes lets us see the origins of Voldemort’s evil; fear, and how as his fear grows, as his horcruxes are destroyed and he comes closer to to being able to die, he lashes out with ever more extreme and less directed fury.
The personal nature of the confrontation with Voldemort, and the heavy weight on Harry’s shoulders also brings out the best in Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe was relatively unremarkable as an actor when he started, but as the years and the films have ticked by he’s become better and better, and he’s really excellent here, bringing great dramatic heft to the later scenes in particular, and convincing as a man who can command the loyalty of a great many very frightened people. Radcliffe is perhaps most effective as he walks to meet Voldemort and, in a slightly Star Wars like moment, talks to the ghosts of many of the people who have died to protect him, unlike Star Wars though, this scene carries a real emotional weight with it, and Radcliffe allows you to see it and to feel it weighing on Harry, without overplaying it.
There has always been a connection between Hermione and Ron’s characters, and it’s been a large part of the last couple of films. It’s a pleasure to see it come to fruition here, and while there is the big emotional moment of the much talked about kiss (which actually is brief and sweet) much else is left unsaid (Hermione’s simple look down to her hand holding Ron’s at the end of the film speaks volumes). Again, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have visibly grown into their roles, to such a degree now that it’s not really like watching actors anymore so much as it is just watching Hermione and Ron, and that’s the holy grail as far as movies are concerned, once you can get the construct to go away and have your audience watching people, not characters, you’ve won.
Much has always been made (certainly I’ve done it over the past week) of the way that each film in the Harry Potter series has been darker and more adult than the last, and as befits a film that is largely about death, sacrifice and a final battle against an ultimate evil this is thee darkest and most violent of the lot. For much of its second act this is a war film, with a bloody battle that ranges through Hogwarts and takes the lives of several beloved characters, the bloodletting may not be explicit (this is still a 12A, though I suspect it pushes that rating quite hard), but it is still very real and very consequential. At the beginning of the third act, in a brief lull in the action, there is time to see the devastation, and it’s hard not to get a little choked up as the camera tracks across dead and bloodied characters we’ve known for many years.
David Yates deserves a lot of praise for delivering on all these emotional moments while keeping the storytelling pacy (at 130 minutes this is the shortest of the series), the action exciting and the shots genuinely interesting to look at. Hogwarts itself seems different in this film; harder, colder and more foreboding than it has been before, and Yates focuses on its harsh lines and sharp edges in several moments that have an almost expressionist feel to them, given the shadowy cast of the whole film. You would expect a film with a budget this large to look good, but it’s not always so, and as well as avoiding the Transformers trap of over designing characters and over crowding shots, Yates makes his effects work for his shots, not vice versa. I can’t comment on the 3D, because I refuse to see this film in 3D for two reasons. First of all it was shot in and for 2D presentation, that’s the director’s intent, the DP’s intent, the design department’s intent, and that’s how it should be seen. Secondly, this is a world we’ve been familiar with for a decade, and it’s always been presented in 2D, why would I want to suddenly change the way I’ve experienced this world? Overall, the decision to present the last part of this story in ‘3D’ strikes me as like switching ratios from 2.35:1 to 1.66:1 for no apparent reason for the last ten minutes of an eighty minute film. The film looks stunning in 2D; the use of light and shadow, the desaturated colours, augmented by the pyrotechnics of spellcasting, work brilliantly. This will all be diminished in 3D, thanks to the light issues the format simply can’t avoid. You have to see this film, but do it properly, see it in 2D.
On its own terms, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is an exceptional film, though determining whether it is truly the best of the series (it feels like it right now) will take some perspective and some rewatches. What can be said now is that this is a film that deals deftly in both epic scope and personal drama, that its effects never overwhelm its acting or its action, that it is frequently genuinely moving, without ever feeling like it is manipulating you. Okay, so the 19 years later epilogue isn’t really needed, but it’s sweet, and really, after the past 18 hours, it would be churlish to complain about those five minutes. It has been a very, very long time (perhaps since Jurassic Park) since there was a blockbuster this good in cinemas, and it is likely to be a very, very long time before another comes close to this one. I’ll miss Harry Potter, but there really couldn’t have been a better way for this franchise to go out.